John Kerry (search) denied ever saying Democrats make the mistake of trying to win in the South, although his remarks on the subject are hard to read any other way. Wesley Clark (search) asserted, "I am an outsider" despite his obvious Washington ties.

The Washington insider is a favorite rhetorical target in Democratic debates and the one Thursday night in South Carolina (search) was no exception. Lost in the rush to criticize that creature was the fact that several of the presidential candidates depend on insiders or have those credentials themselves.

Clark declared, "I'm not a career politician, I'm not a Washington insider." Although he is new to politics, the retired general has had plenty of experience with the ways of Washington, starting with a stint as a White House fellow in the mid-1970s. He recently earned almost $500,000 in nearly two years as a lobbyist for an Arkansas database firm.

Most notably in between, he reported to Washington as head of the Southern Command -- in charge of U.S. military operations in Central and South America and the Caribbean -- and capped his military career as NATO supreme allied commander during the Clinton administration.

Howard Dean (search) just hired a Washington insider, former Al Gore adviser Roy Neel, as his campaign CEO. Dean said Neel "never lobbied" and kept faith with ethical guidelines after leaving the White House.

Neel's adherence to lobbying ethics has not been questioned but he has, in fact, lobbied for the telecommunications industry -- most recently registering to represent Verizon, SBC Communications and Bell South in 2002. Dean appeared to be trying to say that Neel did not lobby in violation of any rules, but that's not what debate watchers heard.

The debate opened with Kerry being asked about comments to the effect that Democrats put too much focus on winning Southern states.

"I never said that," he responded. "I never said Democrats made a mistake."

But in a recent town-hall meeting in New Hampshire, Kerry talked about how Democrat Gore could have become president by winning even one more non-Southern state. "Everybody always makes the mistake of looking South," he said.

Trying to explain that remark in advance of the South Carolina primary Tuesday, Kerry said in the debate that he had just been making a mathematical point about Gore's campaign.

Also in the debate:

--Joe Lieberman accused President Bush of having "the worst economic record of any administration since the end of the Second World War."

That point is highly arguable because it depends on how an economic record is defined, and Lieberman did not elaborate except to talk about jobs. The economy has lost about 2.3 million jobs under Bush, giving him the worst job creation record of any president since Herbert Hoover.

But other measures of economic performance are not so bleak. In the third quarter of 2003, for example, the economy grew at a blistering 8.2 percent rate --the strongest performance in nearly two decades.

--Kerry said Bush "wants to privatize Social Security" -- an oversimplification of a proposal to let younger workers invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in private accounts under certain conditions.